High flyers see island life doesn't stay too grounded

Getting the people of the Highlands and Islands from one place to another is a serious business, says air traffic services body Nats

Airports provide a vital link for Scotlands Highlands and Islands. Picture: Contributed

From Heathrow to the Highlands, Land’s End to John o’Groats, Nats provides air traffic management services to support vital transport links between communities large and small, the length and breadth of Britain. Air travel has become vital to everyday life in Scotland’s Highlands and Islands, where life has been transformed by the provision of regular flights connecting residents and visitors with their mainland neighbours.

In addition to the Nats air traffic control centre at Prestwick and the local air traffic management services Nats provides at Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow airports, from Aberdeen Airport Nats provides air traffic services to helicopters operating offshore on behalf of the oil, gas and shipping industries, and engineering services from Inverness and Sumburgh – all of which help to connect the Scottish islands with the mainland, and with each other.

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Since the mid-1990s, Nats has provided engineering services for Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (Hial), playing its part in keeping the group’s 11 airports running smoothly and efficiently, and supporting the air services that are essential to so many residents and businesses.

In addition to overseeing and undertaking planned and corrective maintenance across Hial’s estate, Nats is contracted to take on minor projects, technical engineering support and asset management for operational engineering projects, and to provide an approach radar service at Sumburgh Airport – commitments that rely on the expertise and knowledge of dedicated Nats engineers who are prepared to up-tools at a moment’s notice to deal with localised maintenance issues and plan scheduled improvements.

But what does it mean for the local residents?

Traditionally, the stunningly-beautiful Scottish Highlands and Islands were populated by farming and fishing communities that congregated in pockets in the countryside and on the coast. Until relatively recently these communities used to look to the sea for their livelihoods and transport links, with fishing boats and various types of ferryboats being their only means of travelling to and from the mainland and between islands.

The advent of air travel brought a new dimension to life on these islands, and offered new transport options to populations separated by the sea from their mainland neighbours.

From our engineering base at Inverness airport, Nats teams travel out and about to support operations at the 11 airports operated and managed by Hial at Benbecula, Campbeltown, Dundee, Islay, Inverness, Kirkwall, Stornoway, Sumburgh, Tiree and Wick – not forgetting the spectacular beach landing strip that, as Barra Airport, sees 900 aircraft movements every year.

The daily scheduled flights that operate from each of these airports have become hugely important for many island residents who have come to rely on air travel for many aspects of their daily lives, from shopping days out and stocking up on groceries to providing timely access to essential services such as medical care via Scottish Air Ambulance and emergency search and rescue.

For these communities, the only alternative to air travel for accessing the mainland and service centres, which are sometimes on another island, are ferry services or long road journeys, neither of which can 
compete with air services for time-critical travel. Aviation is also central to the islands’ economic and commercial wellbeing, supporting local businesses, oil and gas helicopter operations, postal services and lighthouse maintenance.

Communities on Fair Isle, West Foula, Papa Stour and Whalsay, for example, now rely on air transport for regular services such as mail and newspaper deliveries, while these islands’ pupils and students commute to and from their Shetland senior school by plane, with Nats air traffic controllers overseeing their airborne “bus service” to help ensure the safety of their daily flights.

Take Sumburgh, for example. Perched near the southern tip of Shetland, Sumburgh Airport offers the island’s only air links to mainland Britain in the form of regular scheduled flights to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and the Orkney Islands via Kirkwall. International services also run to Bergen in Norway.

The airport presents unusual challenges, including a runway that is dissected by a major public road and whose eastern end is over the North Sea and western end is over the Atlantic Ocean.

Yet Sumburgh’s aviation link between Shetland and the mainland is imperative – currently the only alternative to making a one-hour journey by air to Aberdeen Airport involves a ferryboat trip from Lerwick scheduled to take up to 14 hours. For businesses, too, regular air services provide a crucial link for the transportation of personnel, goods, and services between Shetland and the outside world, from newspapers and magazines to supermarket staples and office supplies.

Shetland islanders’ medical care, whether routine or emergency, is also considerably enhanced by aviation. Although Lerwick’s Gilbert Bain Hospital serves the local community well, most specialist surgery is carried out in Aberdeen and many patients are transferred there by fully equipped air ambulance. Islanders attending out-patients’ appointments in Aberdeen are often to be seen alighting from a scheduled flight in the morning and returning the same afternoon – completing their return journey as a day-trip that would be impossible by ferry.

Far from merely facilitating summer holidays, the success of the work of the remarkable team at Hial, bolstered by Nats’ expert behind-the-scenes support, is testament to the pivotal importance of aviation to the whole of the UK as an island nation.

All of us at Nats are proud to be involved with providing a valuable service to these and many other communities.

• For more information about Nats go to www.Nats.aero/services/airports/